Where’s the History? The absence of history on History Television

by Contributor on April 2, 2012

By Alison Deplonty, MA Candidate, Department of Anthropology, University of Western Ontario

What do Top Gear, Ax Men, and Rodeo: Life on the Circuit have in common with Greatest Tank Battles, Lost Worlds, and Battle 360?  They’re all programs on History Television.  If you’re like me and you’re wondering what the former have to do with history, you’re not alone.  What happened to the evenings of Digging for the Truth, Underworld Histories, and Patton 360?  The History Television bio on Twitter says that they provide “entertaining programs that bring to life people and events from the past and history in the making.”  Maybe the folks at History Television think that Around the World in 80 Ways, Ice Road Truckers, and similar programs depict history in the making, but I don’t—no matter how entertaining they may be.

Don’t get me wrong, I love watching History Television!  I’ve spent hours watching M*A*S*H with my father, and programs like Digging for the Truth are part of the reason I decided to get involved with public history and archaeology.  But another part of me is sad to see History Television’s emphasis on ‘reality TV’ programming lately.

It’s possible that History Television is trying to appeal to a broader audience and become more ‘family friendly’ with these ‘reality’ programs, and for shows like Hairy Bikers or Around the World in 80 Ways I might agree.  But when it comes to Outlaw Bikers and Swamp People, I find this harder to believe.  Especially when ‘family friendly’ programs like Beast Legends, haven’t been renewed.  And their current programing appears to be directed towards a mostly ‘male’ audience.

Besides this turn towards ‘reality TV’ History Television is increasingly airing programs that depict more far-flung interpretations of history.  Ancient Aliens, The Lost Book of Nostradamus, and Brad Meltzer’s Decoded may be loosely related to historical events or figures but they definitely depict ‘alternative’ versions of ‘history.’  And I’m not even including actual fiction programs, mini-series, and movies that are aired on the channel.

I’ve used examples from Canada’s History Television line-up, but the same kinds of programs are found on the History Channel in the United States.  Unfortunately, much of the public’s understanding of history comes from mass media sources, like the shows aired on History Television, and not from professional historians or educators. However, one has to wonder about History Television’s ability to educate the public about the past if the focus is on ‘reality TV’ and ‘alternative’ interpretations of history.

If I was in charge of programming for History Television, what would I do?  Put back the history!  I’d say enough with the ‘reality TV’ and ‘alternative’ histories.  I’d air history oriented programming during the day, not the middle of the night.  You don’t have to run them all in primetime slots – you can leave those for newer shows like Museum Secrets or Battle Castle, but at least try to make primetime shows fit with your mandate.

And above all, don’t get rid of M*A*S*H.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Mike April 2, 2012 at 11:09 pm

Thanks for this interesting post. The trend on History Television seems to also be a part of the network’s desire to compete with A & E’s shows (Duck Dynasty, Lady Hoggers, American Hoggers etc) and TLC’s shows (Hoarders, Littlest Hoarders, Storage Wars etc) Some of these shows contain the base elements of history but you really have to dig for it as this is clearly not the intent. For example, Swamp People has actually done a decent job outlining the history of alligator hunting in the bayou and has actually pointed out that many of the “swampers” can trace their lineage back to the Acadian Expulsion (1755-1753). But these nuggets are few and far between and the show largely focuses on the antics of these various hunters and actually further marginalizes them. Rather then respecting these individuals for practicing a dying profession and maintaining their culture, the viewers are almost instructed to laugh at the foibles of these “backward yokels.” Anyways, it was not all that long ago that the History Channel was termed the “Hitler Channel” because of its ubiquitous Hitler and Nazi themed programming. While this system was not without flaw at least it contained history, not necessarily the case with some shows such as Ice Road Truckers, Ax Men, Ice Pilots etc. To close, a friend and I applied for a casting call last year for History Television’s pilot, “It Happened Here.” The basic premise was that a historical duo would go around Canada to various locations and dig up the juicy historical details for viewers. We made it to the second round of auditions but that was as far as it went for us and to my knowledge the pilot was never even greenlit. However, looking at the current lineup it is understandable, based on the network’s current quirky occupationally-centred reality shows, but regrettable that this type of Canadian historical programming did not make the cut. Yet, there are still some great shows on HT that push quality historical programming so all hope is not lost…yet.

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